Tragedy: An Overview
Tragedy usually focuses on figures
of stature whose fall implicates others--a family, an entire group,
or even a whole society--and typically the tragic protagonist
becomes isolated from his or her society (Phedre's "outcast and
fugitive from all" would suit Lear and Hamlet as well).
In tragedy, life goes on; in
life goes onward and upward. In the tragic vision, the possibility
of a happy ending is unrealized, although it is sometimes
suggested, as when Lear is briefly reconciled to Cordelia. When
tragedy pauses to look at comedy, it views such a happy ending as
an aborted or by-passed possibility. At best, it acknowledges "what
might have been" as an ironic way of magnifying "tragic waste."
Tragedy tends to exclude comedy. In the tragic vision, something
or someone dies or lapses into a winter of discontent.
The "Tragic Vision"
In tragedy, there seems to be a mix
of seven interrelated elements that help to establish what we may
call the "Tragic Vision":
- The conclusion is catastrophic.
- The catastrophic conclusion will seem inevitable.
- It occurs, ultimately, because of the human limitations of
- The protagonist suffers terribly.
- The protagonist's suffering often seems disproportionate to
his or her culpability.
- Yet the suffering is usually redemptive, bringing out the
noblest of human capacities
- The suffering is also redemptive in bringing out the
capacity for accepting moral responsibility.
The Catastrophic Conclusion
In tragedy, unlike comedy, the
denouement tends to be catastrophic; it is perceived as the
concluding phase of a downward movement. In comedy, the change of
fortune is upward; the happy ending prevails (more desirable than
true, says Northrop Frye in the Anatomy of Criticism), as
obstacles are dispelled and the hero and/or heroine are happily
incorporated into society or form the nucleus of a new and better
society. In tragedy, there is the unhappy ending--the hero's or
heroine's fall from fortune and consequent isolation from society,
often ending in death.
The Sense of Inevitability
To the audience of a tragedy, the
catastrophe will seem, finally, to be inevitable. Although tragedy
can not simply be identified with uncontrollable disasters, such as
an incurable disease or an earthquake, still there is the feeling
that the protagonist is inevitably caught by operating forces which
are beyond his control (sometimes like destiny, visible only in
their effects). Whether grounded in fate or nemesis,
accident or chance, or in a causal sequence set going through some
action or decision initiated by the tragic protagonist himself or
herself, the operating forces assume the function of a distant and
Human Limitation, Suffering, and Disproportion
Ultimately, perhaps, all the
instances that we find in tragedy of powerlessness, of undeniable
human limitations, derive from the tragic perception of human
existence itself, which seems, at least in part, to be terrifyingly
vulnerable, precarious, and problematic. And it is precisely
because of these human limitations that suffering also becomes
basic to the tragic vision. Tragedy typically presents situations
that emphasize vulnerability, situations in which both physical and
spiritual security and comforts are undermined, and in which the
characters are pressed to the utmost limits--overwhelming odds,
impossible choices, demonic forces within or without (or both).
Against the tragic protagonist are the powers that be, whether
human or divine, governed by fate or chance, fortune or accident,
necessity or circumstance, or any combination of these. The more
elevated, the more apparently secure and privileged the character's
initial situation, the greater is our sense of the fall, of the
radical change of fortune undergone, and the greater our sense of
his or her suffering. Tragedy testifies to suffering as an
enduring, often inexplicable force in human life.
In the suffering of the
protagonists, there is frequently, something disproportionate. Even
to the extent that there is some human cause, the eventual
consequences may seem too severe. In Lear's case, we may or may not
agree that he is "more sinned against than sinning," but Cordelia
certainly is. This inequity is particularly profound for some of
those who surround the protagonists, those who seem to bear (at
worst) minor guilt, the so-called "tragic victims."
The Learning Process and Acceptance of Moral
Despite the inevitable catastrophe,
the human limitation, the disproportionate suffering, the tragic
vision also implies that suffering can call forth human
potentialities, can clarify human capacities, and that often there
is a learning process that the direct experience of suffering
engenders--Lear and Phedre are transformed by it. Gloucester may
think that we are to the gods as flies to wanton boys--"they kill
us for their sport"--but such a conception of brutal slaughter is
alien to the tragic vision. Indeed, tragedy provides a complex view
of human heroism, a riddle mixed of glory and jest, nobility and
irony. The madness that is wiser than sanity, the blind who see
more truly than the physically sighted, are recurring metaphors for
the paradox of tragedy, which shows us human situations of pitiful
and fearful proportions, but also of extraordinary achievement.
For tragedy presents not only
weakness and precarious security and liability to suffering, but
also its nobility and greatness. Tragedies do not occur to puppets.
While the "tragic victim" is one of the recurring character types
of tragedy (Cordelia, Ophelia, Desdemona, Andromaque, Hippolytus,
and even, perhaps, Richard II and Phedre), tragic protagonists more
frequently have an active role, one which exposes not only their
errors of judgment, their flaws, their own conscious or unwitting
contribution to the tragic situation, but which also suggests their
enormous potentialities to endure or survive or transcend
suffering, to learn what "naked wretches" feel, and to attain a
complex view of moral responsibility.
The terrifying difficulty of
accepting moral responsibility is an issue in Hamlet as well
as in Sophocles' Antigone or Oedipus Tyrannus. It is
an issue in all tragedy, even when the moral status of the
protagonist(s) is not admirable. Whatever Aristotle's hamartia
is, it is not necessarily moral culpability,
although it may be, as the case of Macbeth illustrates. Tragic
vision insists upon man's responsibility for his actions. This is
the essential element of the vision that permits us to deny access
to its precincts to puppets, who, by definition, have neither free
will nor ultimate responsibility for their existence. Tragedy
acknowledges the occasional disproportion between human acts and
their consequences, but imposes or accepts responsibility
nevertheless. In this way, pain and fear are spiritualized as
suffering, and, as Richard Sewall suggests in .us The Vision of
Tragedy, the conflict of man and his "destiny" is elevated to
One of the conventions
and analyzed by Aristotle was that the change of fortune, peripety
or reversal, experienced by the tragic hero, should be accompanied
by anagnorisis or cognitio, "discovery" or
"recognition." The conditions and the degree of this discovery vary
considerably. It may even be relatively absent from the
protagonists's awareness, as we have noted. But it is almost always
central to the audience's responses. In the school of suffering we
are all students, witnessing, like Lear, essential, "unaccomodated"
man, and we become caught up in an extended discovery, not only of
human limitation, but also of human potentiality.
Adapted from A Guide to the Study of
Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of
Literature, ©English Department, Brooklyn College.
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